Despite the commitment to responsible management education (RME) by business schools, has the complex agenda of embedding sustainability authentically translated into reality? By Fara Azmat, Ameeta Jain and Bhavani Sridharan.
The pressure for business schools to address sustainability and make management education responsible, driven by initiatives like Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME), UN Sustainable development goals (SDGs), and major accreditation bodies such as AACSB, EFMD is intense, growing, and impossible to ignore.
In the context of rising sustainability challenges — growing inequalities, climate change, geopolitical tensions, corporate scandals, the effects of the global pandemic — business schools across the world are facing the pressure of delivering RME to enable students to develop into responsible future leaders. Incorporating sustainability perspectives, RME is a holistic term that requires business schools to adopt a systems perspective focusing not only on education, but also on research and enterprise activities, while cultivating their own ethos and demonstrating commitment with actions across every school activity (Azmat et al., 2023; Beddewela et al., 2017). For business schools, delivering RME is not just a moral responsibility to equip students with the sustainability mindset, knowledge and skillsets; it also has strategic implications. The external pressure — driven by PRME, UN SDGs, and the major accreditation bodies such as AACSB, EFMD and the Financial Times — for business schools to deliver RME is intense and impossible to ignore. As part of this global movement, a growing number of schools are now committed to delivering RME through embedding SDGs across curricula, research, and partnerships. While this rhetoric of RME is important, after more than seven years of adoption of SDGs and halfway towards Agenda 2030, there is a need to assess how business schools are proceeding towards the delivery of RME and the reality in the field of management education.
For business schools, RME has proven to be ‘a complex, emerging, evolving and non-linear process’ (Cicmil et al., 2017, p. 303). This is because it challenges the dominant business school pedagogical constructs of profit above all else and the primacy of shareholders’ rights and seeks to transform stakeholders’ knowledge, understanding and behaviour to a more balanced, ethical, sustainable world (Kurucz et al., 2014). Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student enrolments in business schools have been adversely impacted, leading to ongoing pressures for profit maximisation. Schools are being forced to navigate the tension between increasing their enrolments and revenue, with the cost of changing the business school ethos required for RME.
To understand the rhetoric versus reality of business schools’ commitment to RME, we interviewed a cross-section of academic staff and a group of undergraduate and postgraduate students from an Australian business school, and experts on SDGs and PRME from Australia and across the world. Using this primary data, we were able to identify: first, the current position of rhetoric versus reality of embedding SDGs in business schools, and, second, the enablers and roadblocks in this process of RME, enabling us to make some suggestions on how to overcome these roadblocks.
What are business schools doing now?
All business schools in our global sample are committed to delivering RME; however, their journey in doing so varies, dependent on their own unique context, organisational needs and idiosyncratic capacities. We concur with earlier research that found business schools tended to focus on embedding SDGs in their curricula (Wersun et al., 2020) in their approach towards RME, through mandatory core or elective units, across the entire curriculum or using an interdisciplinary approach. Schools are committed to embedding sustainability in their operational activities, by incorporating SDGs in their strategic plans, reducing carbon emissions, across supply chains, transport, construction and finance. On a positive note, embedding sustainability is increasingly being embraced in schools, leading towards positive social and environmental impact. One expert explained:
We have now got staff who are taking responsibility for what we do as a business school, not just what we teach and not just what we research. They are asking questions and saying, why don’t we do things this way, wouldn’t it be better, wouldn’t we save more paper, wouldn’t we save more fuel or save more whatever, if we do this differently?
In research, while sustainability forms a big part of business schools’ research, most schools don’t have a formal, coherent SDG-driven research strategy, policy/guidelines or criteria for sustainability. SDG research, in particular, is driven by the ‘personal interest’ of individual staff and in most cases, the schools’ approach involves aligning the normal research outputs with the SDGs, rather than a coherent research strategy at the top level.
Sustainability/SDG-focused teaching or research is not yet recognised in most schools for workload allocation or promotion. Thus, academics have little incentive to spend time and effort engaging in meaningful sustainability teaching and research. For example, one member mentioned:
When it comes to promotions and things like that, they (university management) are looking at publications which are in your area; since I am in marketing, they are looking at marketing publications, so I was kind of discouraged; when we spend a lot of time on this but not getting enough recognition.
Different initiatives emerged in our findings that could facilitate embedding sustainability in the research culture and send a powerful message about its importance to the staff, as well as other stakeholders. These included: ‘linking promotion and funding with sustainability initiatives’; ‘linking people’s profiles with SDGs’, and ‘allocating appropriate resources’, realising the time-consuming nature of publishing and developing relationships.
What is lacking?
The different approaches adopted by business schools to embed sustainability across their curricula, research and operations show that their journey to RME remains fragmented and characterised by different ‘challenges’ and ‘enablers’ along the way. We discuss three key challenges with recommendations below:
Awareness and understanding
Business education has come a long way in developing an understanding and awareness of the worldview of social consciousness towards realising the SDG vision with pockets of excellence recognised in all three areas – teaching, research and operational practice. Despite this progress, a lack of understanding, and awareness of the relevance for sustainability by key stakeholders — staff, industry and students— emerged as a key theme in our study. The lack of awareness of PRME/SDGs was also an issue among the businesses. For example, one member of staff expressed his frustration:
Actually, I have presented to our regional meetings where some local business entities thought it was a fad and didn’t expect universities would be involved in this. It doesn’t really make you any more attractive as a business school, and I can quote he said, “This doesn’t get you one extra student, so why you are doing it?”
Raising awareness is, therefore, a critical first step for “developing a sustainability-focused mindset”, “commitment and buy-in of academics”, as well as building the academics’ cognisance about its relevance and actively engaging academics and businesses. This could be done through capacity-building sessions or workshops/seminars and discussion forums to highlight the importance of SDGs, and also through the appointment of PRME/SDGs champions. Considering that educators have a key role in shaping the mindsets and skills of our future thought leaders to influence entire societies, the impetus can begin with cohesively developing educators’ awareness, capacity, and dispositions to facilitate the seamless integration and development of societal responsibilities and environmental issues in the curriculum as well as in research and operations. A systemic approach involving awareness raising of staff, students and other stakeholders could act as a springboard for their ‘buy-in’ to develop appropriate values and influence the dispositions of our future leaders to effect societal change at scale. For example, many Australian higher education institutions are in the process of mandatory infusion of ‘indigenous knowings’ into curricula empowering both teachers and students towards the betterment of society – a significant step in the right direction.
Cultural and structural issues
Raising awareness and developing the knowledge, skills and dispositions of key stakeholders is necessary but alone is not sufficient for RME success. The authentic realisation of RME demands the adoption of a systems perspective to address cultural and structural barriers arising from (a) the disconnect between ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ by key stakeholders (students, academics, policymakers and top management) owing to deep-rooted beliefs, values and dispositions and (b) lack of institutional top-level structural support for operationalising RME in business schools. Addressing the first issue requires a fundamental cultural transformation, seamlessly embedding sustainability/SDGs into the culture of the business school at all levels – top-down, middle-out and bottom-up. Tackling the second issue requires top management support in terms of developing holistic sustainability policies and procedures, clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities, and genuine commitment and engagement to operationalise the RME vision.
SDGs need to be institutionalised as an explicit part of the school’s strategy, permeating all aspects of the school and extending across all functional areas – curricula, research and operations. Support from the top management is critical for such cultural and structural transformation to motivate staff, allocate resources, develop capacities and capabilities, encourage taking ownership and integrating SDGs in key policy documents to facilitate execution. Sample strategies include systematic integration of service-learning pedagogies into the curriculum, opportunities to work with culturally diverse learners and facilitating student and faculty exchange programs. The lived and immersive experiences from these opportunities will have a lasting impact on actual practice, leading to impactful mainstream societal outcomes. An example of such a deep-rooted habitual transformation is the practice of maintaining hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, research and operations can be enhanced through incentive schemes and a facilitating environment.
The final biggest challenge to firmly embedding SDGs, particularly in curricula and research, is the lack of resources – time, funding, and knowledge. This has become particularly evident since the pandemic, budgets have shrunk and domestic and international enrolments have declined. The pandemic also led to workforce layoffs across the world, with departing staff taking their significant tacit knowledge and networks, often built up over many years, with them, and it is these that schools are finding difficult to replace. As one participant explained: “when a member of staff leaves, history and knowledge goes along with them, leaving a vacuum.” Workforce layoffs have led to increased workloads among the remaining staff, along with tensions around multiple competing priorities of teaching, research and leadership responsibilities. For example, one of the experts stated, “even if people have the best intentions, they just don’t have the time.” In the midst of all this, the RME and SDG agendas take a back seat.
To address these concerns, the following strategies could be deployed. The implementation of systems to encourage work on sustainability through the provision of awards, thereby recognising the time-consuming nature of research and relationship development. Secondly, retaining knowledge through ‘knowledge creation and sharing’, appointing ‘champions and ambassadors’, developing a knowledge bank to transfer and store tacit knowledge and information on the network of people. Third, developing sustainable work practices facilitated by institutional leadership support towards establishing a sustainability culture, providing direction, allocating time and incentives, motivating staff, and supporting them with resources.
While business schools’ journey to deliver RME varies, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, highlighting the need to develop their own approach to RME focusing on their individual context, organisational capabilities and needs, there are certain common barriers to RME that apply to all schools. These include lack of awareness and understanding of SDGs by the key stakeholders, the need to transform business schools to create a culture so sustainability is institutionalised, and general lack of resources. It is hoped that business schools will be able to meet these challenges head on, as things start to return to normal after the global pandemic. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted that RME is not optional but an essential attribute of business schools. How this challenge will be met remains to be seen.
Azmat, F., A. Jain and B. Sridharan (2023). Responsible Management Education in Business Schools: Are We There Yet? Journal of Business Research 157.
Beddewela, E., C. Warin, F. Hesselden, & A. Coslet (2017). Embedding responsible management education – Staff, student and institutional perspectives. The International Journal of Management Education,
Cicmil, S., G. Gough and S. Hills (2017). Insights into responsible education for sustainable development: The case of UWE, Bristol. The International Journal of Management Education, 15(2), 293-305.
Kurucz, E. C., B.A. Colbert and J. Marcus (2014). Sustainability as a provocation to rethink management education: Building a progressive educative practice. Management Learning, 45(4), 437-457.
Wersun, A., J. Klatt, F. Azmat, H. Suri, C. Hauser, J. Bogie, M. Meaney and N. Ivanov (2020). Blueprint for SDG Integration into Curriculum, Research and Partnerships. UN PRME Secretariat.
- Responsible management education: Rhetoric vs reality - June 5, 2023